Wednesday, March 5, 2014
A Slice of the Past
I was cruising through the Produce department yesterday whilst grocery shopping and stumbled upon a small cache of rhubarb tucked between lettuce and asparagus. I stopped and stared for a moment or two at the gorgeous deep reds and long stalks. Visions of making a rhubarb pie beckoned. I tried to resist the urge and actually walked away. Okay, I walked about five feet, looked back, imagined that first, tart bite of pie...and fell to temptation. There's a very short window for rhubarb; it's a pie made just for Spring. I decided not to waste the opportunity.
My baking skills are pretty average, though if I have a knack for anything, it's pie. Over time I've figured out the perfect crust--the best part of a pie to my mind--and can make a mouth-watering Lemon Meringue, though my very most favorite pie is from a recipe I got from a little old lady named Hazel.
I used to work at my college bookstore. At the end of every term, this trio of part-time ladies would come, set up their booth and spend a week buying back the textbooks. They were sharks, those three. They knew the price of every used book, could flip through the pages in a nano second, find every mark and notation, and there was no arguing prices.
Hazel was past retirement age, somewhere in her seventies, I think. She was quick, sharp and had a death ray stare that could bring the biggest jerk to a stuttering halt. She could also bake like the best granny in the world. At the end of their week, the ladies would bring treats for the lowly student bookstore workers and we'd have an impromptu "see you next term" party.
Once she brought her rhubarb pie. I had never liked rhubarb. It was too tart, too stringy, too...whatever. Hazel gave me a slice before I could say no and because she was so sweet--and had that blasted death stare--I took the pie, thinking I would just toss it away when she wasn't looking. Hah. She waited for me to have a taste. With my first bite, my rhubarb-hating life was changed forever. Her pie was from an old recipe, made for years and years in her family. And it was beyond delicious.
Needless to say, I begged for the recipe. Hazel's French Custard Rhubarb was the first pie I ever made and became the one that set me on my course of future pies, techniques, and best crusts.
I came home after shopping, had lunch, and made Hazel's pie.
Ready for the oven...all the juicy custard is oozing through the lattice...
One hour later...
It took all afternoon and into the early evening for the pie to cool. The wonderful smells of fresh-from-the-oven pie was driving me nuts, but I knew everything had to set before I could cut a slice...
I haven't made a pie since leaving Edinburgh three years ago; even longer since I've made this one. It felt good to roll the crust, chop the bright red stalks, make the filling. I thought about Hazel as I worked, and how many times I've made this recipe.
Then finally, last night after dinner, I took my first bite...and closed my eyes to savor the creamy texture of the custard, the crispness of the crust, the tang and bite of the rhubarb.
It's magical when a blend of ordinary ingredients can combine to make something extraordinary.